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The Osage Orange Tree of Bear Mountain

doodletown80When I moved to New York in 2006 I was very interested in finding cool and unique places to go, the kind that I constantly found out west. While living in California I hiked in the San Jacinto Mountains finding new types of vegetation I had never seen before. I found Ghost Towns with remnants from the Gold Rush. I found “seas” that were dying (the Salton Sea) and desert canyons whose multiple colors defied the typical brownish red most people think of. So when I moved back to New York, a place I grew up and typically viewed as boring, my hope to was explore new and fascinating places.

Through some research I discovered a ghost town in Bear Mountain called Doodletown. I’ve written about it here. It was abandoned in the 1960s with only foundations and plaques remaining. There are also a few mines, one of which was Thomas Edison’s. During one of my hikes there I discovered some strange fruit fallen from a tree which really grabbed my interest. Researching online I discovered it is called the Osage Orange. There is a bit of disinformation out there on the fruit, so I went to a few reliable sources and found some interesting facts about it. It’s a rather disgusting looking fruit, which to me looks like worms or brains on the outside, but people loved using the plant as hedges, or fences, back in the day due to its density and thorns. Native Americans cherished the wood from the tree so much they made bows out of it. Meriwether Lewis claims to have traveled hundreds of miles to get ahold of it. When dried the wood has an extremely high BTU content, and it’s used for handles, bows, fences, etc. He supposedly sent Thomas Jefferson some seeds, who in turn gifted some to George Washington. The oldest tree standing on Washington’s River Farm today is an Osage Orange Tree and to this day it is the largest Osage Orange tree in the country. More recently, when President Roosevelt started his Great Plains Shelterbelt WPA project in the 1930s, this was one of the trees used to create weather and soil barriers.

Here’s a snipbit from the Smithsonian’s website:

“In March 1804, while Lewis was in St. Louis attending the Louisiana Territory transfer ceremonies, he sent Jefferson a shipment of botanical specimens, including live Osage apple cuttings. Though they did not survive, some samples Lewis collected in 1807 did, and as Susan H. Munger writes in Common to This Country: Botanical Discoveries of Lewis and Clark, “trees growing in Philadelphia and at the University of Virginia are said to be direct descendants of the cuttings sent back by Lewis.”

The Osage orange, which Lewis obtained from Pierre Chouteau, a former Indian agent, was probably the expedition’s most significant botanical discovery. The plant’s long thorns created a virtually impenetrable hedge, and later in the 19th century, many thousands of miles of these trees would be planted as frontier fencing. The fragrant tree held its popularity as a barrier until it was eclipsed by barbed wire in the 1880s.”

Source: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/osage-oranges-take-a-bough-105043145/#HTFWTqYW34oeQdlv.99

One reason I’m excited to even write about it is how rare it is to see one in this part of the country nowadays.  It’s native to Texas, Oklahoma, and parts of Louisiana today. Apparently it’s so uncommon that when Superstorm Sandy took down the centuries old one in Druid Hill Park in Baltimore, one publication wrote a whole article about it.

I did find one government website with locations of the tree here in New York. It does list Rockland County, where Bear Mountain is located in. So while this tree may not be very common in the Northeast, it does still thrive in a few parts, and there is one in a ghost town called Doodletown.

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